film reporter

'Bridge' sheds light on those who cross over

Suicide may not be painless, the old theme song from "M*A*S*H" notwithstanding. But in 2004, for 24 men and women, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge offered an escape from the pain of their lives — and so they jumped to their deaths. As one of their survivors says sorrowfully in the new film "The Bridge," opening today in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, "I think the bridge has a romance, a false promise, a false romantic promise to it."

Presented by the Independent Film Channel, which will broadcast the documentary in the spring, "Bridge" offers images of serene beauty. But it also is unnerving because its cameras watch, powerlessly, as a number of individuals leap into the void. For its director, Eric Steel, the film presents "an opportunity to look at something that we choose not to see."

Steel traces the film's origins to Sept. 11. Living about a mile from the World Trade Center, he couldn't escape the image of those who jumped from the towers rather than die in the inferno. Reading "Jumpers," an article about the fatal attraction that the Golden Gate Bridge holds for those contemplating suicide, published in 2003 in the New Yorker by Tad Friend, Steel decided to explore the subject on film. For unlike the Sept. 11 victims, who simply might have been trying to prolong their lives, if only by seconds, those who decide to leap from the Golden Gate had to take many minutes, if not hours and days, before reaching their final destination. As Steel says: "Someone had to walk to that spot on the bridge, thinking all the while about ending their life. It inverts the whole notion we have of suicide as something that happens behind closed doors, in the dark. Here it is taking place at a national monument, in broad daylight, in front of strangers."

A former creative executive and producer — he worked as a senior vp at Scott Rudin Prods. — Steel happened to be developing a project based on "Julia and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously," in which author Julie Powell writes of a year working her way through the recipes in author Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." (Nora Ephron is writing the screenplay and plans to direct the film version.) Taking his cue from Powell, Steel decided to train two cameras on the bridge for a year and then explore whatever his cameras witnessed.

Steel and his collaborators did adopt one ground rule: While they followed the anonymous figures crossing the bridge with their telephoto lenses, if anyone appeared to be preparing to jump, they alerted the Bridge Patrols by phone — a decision that saved some lives.

"The role of the documentary filmmaker is to sit behind the camera and record what happens, not to become an actor in front of it," the first-time director says. "But it quickly was clear that was not going to work for me. We were making this movie in hopes of saving people's lives. So for us, it was an easy decision to act to try to save someone's life."

With the assistance of the Coroner of Marin County, Steel then began the delicate task of meeting with the friends and family members of those who had taken their lives. A number of them appear on camera as witnesses, recounting the desperation that drove their loved ones to suicide.

"Bridge" offers more questions than answers. If somehow the Golden Gate Bridge did not exist, would these deaths have happened elsewhere? "To me, that's unanswerable," Steel says. But he is among those arguing that barriers need to be erected along the bridge's walkway — a proposal that still is in the preliminary study stage.